Here’s why your fave Disney princesses look the way they do.
Disney princesses have a special place in every woman’s heart, probably because we grew up with them and went to bed wearing Beauty and the Beast pajamas. But there’s a reason behind your obsession, and a lot of it has to do with the clever ways animators designed your fave princesses.
For example, more than 55 animators designed Pocahontas, and Snow White took years to fully create. That’s because the studios were thinking strategically when creating these iconic characters, and the reasons behind certain characteristics that seem fairly innocuous to us (like why Ariel’s hair is red), are actually quite significant.
Here’s a brief rundown of why your fave Disney princess looks the way she does:
The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel
Ariel stands out among the rest of the pack of Disney princesses for many reasons. For one, she doesn’t have a big, fancy princess dress, and secondly, she has unmistakable vibrant, red hair. But the studio was this close to not even making her a trademark redhead. Animators originally wanted to give her blonde hair because they thought she would be more marketable that way. Fortunately, considering there was already a blonde mermaid in the hit live-action film Splash, the studio had no choice but to give Ariel red hair to differentiate her from that other mermaid.
Another reason animators stuck with the red hair was because it looked more realistic when drawing the underwater scenes. Because red hair was easier to darken than blonde hair, it was yet another reason why a red-headed Ariel triumphed.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
As the first Disney princess, there was a lot of pressure on the studio to get it right. Remember, it was the mid-30s, feature-length animated films weren’t the norm, and everyone thought Walt Disney was crazy. I mean, he did have to remortgage his house to pay for the film because it took so darn long to make, but in the end, it was a huge success. A big reason for that is Snow White’s design. The princess’ real age is supposed to be 14 (weird, I know), so animators originally drew her as a cartoonish, gangly teen. Walt didn’t like this though, as he was going for realism. Snow White was then redrawn with blonde hair, but was ultimately given black hair because they thought it made her more “relatable.”
Another strategic reason behind her design? She was given a larger-than-average head. Although all the characters in the film were based on real-life actors, animators intentionally made Snow White’s head larger so that she could look more proportionate next to the dwarfs. Because of this, actress Marge Champion, who played the live-action version of Snow White, had to wear a football helmet on her head for animators to illustrate to. “I tell you, I nearly fainted,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “It was very hot underneath there and not at all what I expected. It was very limited what I could do with that big hat.”
It’s hard to imagine Jasmine with any other face other than the one she has, but she was close to looking more like the actress she was named after, Jasmine Guy. Back in the early ’90s, the actress made the name “Jasmine” popular, which is why the studio decided to go with it. However, when animators tried to make the princess look like the actress, they found her features were too “severe.” Lead animator Mark Henn eventually used an old yearbook photo of his sister as inspiration.
Originally, the studio wanted to make Jasmine’s outfit pink with the prospect that it would help sell more toys. However, the directors stuck with blue because it had an important symbolism for water.
Beauty and the Beast‘s Belle
As the first “feminist” Disney princess (although that’s debateable), there were a lot of strategic reasons behind Belle’s look. For one, animators dressed her in blue to accentuate her “otherness.” Everyone else in the movie is dressed in beige, orange, or brown, which makes her stand out. Although she’s the prettiest girl in her village, animators gave her a “little wisp of hair” that continuously fell on her face, so she wouldn’t seem too perfect. And her iconic princess gown was changed from pink to gold to differentiate her from Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora.
Disney’s second princess film had a lot of ambition behind it. However, animators didn’t take too long thinking of how they wanted Cinderella to look. They knew they wanted her to be the societal ideal, the kind of woman that girls would want to be and boys would want to date. Because of this, they made her blonde, 120 pounds, and of medium height. According to the studio’s research, a “blonde more captivatingly depicted the symbol of lovelorn maidens” than a brunette or redhead. Although, weirdly enough, in the original film, Cinderella is clearly more of a strawberry blonde than a regular blonde.
The Princess and the Frog‘s Tiana
As the first black Disney princess, there was a lot of pressure on animators to get her right. Fortunately for them, they took the easy way out and based Tiana entirely on voice actress Anika Noni Rose, down to her dimples and even her left-handedness. Another thing that sets Tiana apart from the other princesses is that she has the best wardrobe by far. While most princesses have about two to three outfits per film, Tiana has 11! The reason for this is, duh, marketing. Because Tiana spends the majority of the movie as a frog (um, spoiler alert), animators squeezed in as many dresses as possible for her human character so that there would still be plenty of options for future dolls and other merchandise. Smart.
Although Mulan was the first “tomboy” princess, creating her was a challenge for animators. Because she spends the majority of the movie disguised as a man, animators had to make her convincingly boyish, which meant they couldn’t give her all the Barbie-like proportions that they normally give their princesses. Because of this, Mulan has one of the most realistic bodies out of the Disney princesses. But even without her Barbie dimensions, animators still thought she was too girly. So in the movie, whenever Mulan is in disguise, her eyelashes and double eyelid disappear and her eyebrows grow thicker. When she’s not in disguise, her eyelashes and eyebrows magically grow back. Cartoon makeup, maybe?
Although she was Disney’s first computer-animated princess film, there was something else that was unique about the heroine herself: She had buck teeth. According to supervising animator Glen Keane, he gave Rapunzel several minor quirks on purpose.
“With Rapunzel I did an enormous amount of drawings and I wanted to keep a sense of asymmetry in her,” he said. “I read a book about feminine beauty and it said the key to beauty is strangeness in a woman’s face. There needs to be something slightly off, some element; it might be her nose, her lip, her tooth, or one eye higher than the other, but something. Even in Rapunzel’s teeth, the way she talks, there’s something a little bit wonky in the placement of her teeth, and things like that were designed so that she was more real, true and appealing.”
She might be based on a real person, but there’s nothing about the Disney character that mirrors the historical icon, especially when it comes to looks. In fact, animators originally planned to base her look off the real Pocahontas — until they saw a picture of her. “[She’s] not exactly a candidate for People‘s ‘Most Beautiful’ issue,” Glen said, “so I made a few adjustments to add an Asian feeling to her face.” Ouch.
Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora
She might be one of the most popular Disney princesses now, but Sleeping Beauty was a complete flop when it was first released in 1959. It was a financial failure for Disney, especially because they spent five years on the movie working to get Aurora just right. What sets her style apart from the other princesses is the sharp, angular way she was animated. Thanks to the detailed background art by Eyvind Earle, animators had to make the characters less round and “Disney-like,” and more vertical and pointy to match Eyvind’s backgrounds. That’s why Aurora lacks the softness of other princesses. However, her rigidness is made up by the fact that she’s the only princess with violet eyes.
As for the strategic reason why animators chose violet? There isn’t none — I guess they just liked the color.